Rectal cancer survivor: Immunotherapy saved my life

Some days, I look back at my rectal cancer treatment, and I honestly can’t believe how far I’ve come. The fact that I’m not only alive but stable is remarkable.

My nightmare with rectal cancer began in November 2016, when I was 54. I started to feel discomfort just days before my first colonoscopy. My doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with my colon, but because my pain was intensifying, he sent me to a colorectal surgeon. A biopsy confirmed I had adenocarcinoma in my rectum.

I’d worked as a nurse in Houston for 32 years, and even though I really liked my colorectal surgeon, I knew I’d be crazy if I didn’t come to the world’s top cancer hospital for treatment. So, I scheduled an appointment at MD Anderson in Sugar Land, which is just minutes from my home.

My rectal cancer treatment

From the start, surgical oncologist Dr. Craig Messick told me that even though my cancer hadn’t spread, adenocarcinoma like mine tends to be more aggressive when it starts in the rectum, compared to the colon. Still, I wasn’t prepared for what was to come.

I finished 28 days of simultaneous radiation therapy and oral chemo and prepared for an abdominoperineal resection, a surgery to remove my rectum and distal colon. But during my pre-op preparation, new scans showed the cancer had spread to my liver.

My surgery was canceled, and I quickly met with surgical oncologist Dr. Yun Shin Chun. Within days, my care team had developed a new plan: two months of chemotherapy, followed by a liver resection and two more months of chemo.

After the first two months of chemotherapy, my rectal pain became too brutal to bear. So on June 2, 2017, Dr. Messick performed a laparoscopic diverting colostomy, during which he rerouted my bowels to a colostomy bag. A few weeks later, Dr. Chun resected 30% of my liver to remove the three lesions on it. I started my second two months of chemotherapy that August.

In late October 2017, I started experiencing really bad abdominal pain and couldn’t keep down any food. Turns out, my cancer had spread to my entire abdominal cavity. There were too many tumors to count.

Immunotherapy offers hope

At that point, my care team had exhausted all of the standard rectal cancer treatment options. My oncologist, Dr. Janet Tu, suggested we try immunotherapy because the tumor showed microsatellite instability changes that have shown to respond well to the treatment. She said it would be a shot in the dark, but I was willing to try anything if it could buy me even an extra day with my children.

I met with Dr. Scott Kopetz, and he agreed I could try the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab. But before I could start treatment, I grew so weak and was in so much pain that I was hospitalized. I couldn’t eat anything, so I had to get my nutrients through an IV. As a result of my tumors, my stomach kept filling up with fluid, so I had a catheter placed to drain it all out.

My situation was dire, and Dr. Tu was honest about it. But she and my nurse practitioner, Laurie Hughes, didn’t give up. They raced to get me evaluated for immunotherapy, and toward the end of November, I received my first infusion.

Living with rectal cancer

After my third infusion, I started to tolerate enough food to get off IV nutrition. By January, my stomach had stopped accumulating fluid, and I was able to have the catheter removed.

I continue to feel better, and my disease hasn’t progressed. I must continue the immunotherapy indefinitely, but I’m OK with that. To me, it’s an incredible feeling just to wake up in the morning.

I’m so thankful for MD Anderson. Every doctor, every nurse, every person that I have been in contact with has been outstanding. They did everything to try and help me, and that’s evident by the fact that I am still here today.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.